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'Stationary vehicle detection not activated on M1 where mother died'

Mother-of-five, 62, who died after her car broke down on smart motorway could have been saved by radar that detected stationary vehicles but it had not been activated, inquest hears

  • Technology to detect stationary vehicles had been planned for two stretches of the M1 in Yorkshire when converted into smart motorways, inquest heard
  • However, traffic officer said they had not been included when sections opened 
  • Julian Havell was giving evidence at the inquest of 62-year-old Nargis Begum 
  • Mrs Begum, 62, died on a smart motorway stretch on M1 on September 9, 2018

A mother-of-five who died after her car broke down on a smart motorway could have been saved by technology to detect stationary vehicles but it had not been activated, an inquest heard.

Nargis Begum, 62, died following a collision on a smart motorway stretch of the M1 near Woodall Services, South Yorkshire, on September 9 2018.

Previous hearings have heard the 62-year-old had got out of the car and was waiting for help when a Mercedes collided with the Nissan, causing it plough into her.

On the second day of her inquest, a traffic officer giving evidence said he believed technology to detect stationary vehicles had been planned for two stretches of the M1 in Yorkshire when they were converted to smart motorways a number of years ago.

Traffic officer Julian Havell told the inquest this technology had not been included when the sections were opened despite masts being constructed for the equipment.

Nargis Begum (pictured) died on a stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire, near Woodhall Services, in September 2018

Mrs Begum pictured with her husband Mohammed. Mr Begum gave evidence at his wife’s inquest at Doncaster Coroner’s Court on Tuesday 

Mr Havell told the inquest: ‘I can’t say whether it was budget constraints or an issue with the operation of the technology.’

He had been asked about why he said in his witness statement that there had been a ‘degradation of safety’ by the removal of technology and emergency refuges.

He told the inquest: ‘As a traffic officer, I personally believe that the emergency refuges are not close enough together. There’s not enough of them.’

Prashant Popat QC, for National Highways, challenged Mr Havell on whether the stopped vehicle detection (SVD) system was available at the time the smart motorways in Yorkshire were being constructed.

He said a small-scale trial took place on the M25 in 2014 which led to a larger trial on the same motorway in 2016.

Mr Popat said: ‘Following that trial, National Highways committed to including SVD as standard for all new ALR (all lane running ‘smart’ motorway) schemes going forward from 2018.’

What is a smart motorway and are they safe?

What is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways involve various methods to manage the flow of traffic, including variable speed limits and using the hard shoulder as a live running lane.

How many are there?

Motorways with sections where the hard shoulder has been removed include the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62.

What are the benefits?

They are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.

Are smart motorways safe?

Concerns have been raised about incidents where vehicles stopped in traffic are hit from behind.

But Highways England insists they are ‘at least as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced’.

What does the data show?

An ‘evidence stocktake’ published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps stated that the risk of a collision between moving vehicles is lower on smart motorways than conventional motorways, but the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle is higher when the hard shoulder is removed.

BBC Panorama found that at least 38 people have died on stretches of smart motorways in the past five years.

What happens if I break down on a smart motorway without a hard shoulder?

Drivers are advised to pull into an emergency refuge area (ERA) if possible.

How frequent are they?

They were initially up to 2.5km (1.6 miles) apart, but for smart motorways designed from this year, they are no more than 1.6km (one mile) apart.

What if I can’t reach an ERA or leave my vehicle safely?

If you come to a standstill in a live lane, call 999, switch on your hazard warning lights and stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on.

What happens next?

Once Highways England is alerted to a stopped vehicle in a live lane, overhead gantries will display a red X to indicate the lane is closed.

What do drivers think about them?

An AA poll of 15,000 motorists suggested only one in 10 drivers feel safer on smart motorways without a hard shoulder than traditional motorways.

The barrister told the witness: ‘There is no piece of safety technology that’s relevant to anything we are discussing at this inquest that was removed from between junction 29 and 31 of the M1 at any stage prior to the construction of the ALR or removed after construction.’

Mr Popat said the gaps between refuges or other places of relative safety in the area, including junctions and service stations, were all within those specified in the relevant guidance.

The second day of Mrs Begum’s inquest also heard that Mr Havell comes across drivers stuck in live lanes on just about every patrol, with seven being the most he can recall in one day.

He said: ‘I found one lady sitting in the live lane of the M1 who had been there in excess of one and a half hours.’

Mr Havell recalled the incident happened ‘in the last couple of years’ and the woman was stranded between Woodhall services and Junction 30 of the M1, with a flat tyre, waiting for one of the recovery services.

On Tuesday the inquest heard Mrs Begum and her husband, Mohammed Bashir, 69, were driving from Derby to their home in Darnall, Sheffield, when the car ‘suddenly’ dropped speed.

The hearing was told the couple had borrowed the car from their daughter, Saima Aktar, 40, as Mrs Begum suffered from arthritis and preferred her vehicle as it had more space.

A statement from Mr Bashir, read by counsel to the inquest by Bridget Dolan QC, said that shortly after passing the service station the car started to lose speed, so he tried dropping down to the lowest gear, and then trying to start it up again.

Taxi driver Mr Bashir said he then ‘brought the car to a standstill in what I thought was the hard shoulder but was actually a live lane’.

His statement said he put his hazard warning lights on and the couple got out of the car.

The inquest heard Mr Bashir climbed over the barrier and called his daughter to ask about the car’s recovery documents, but Mrs Begum was unable to get over the barrier as it was too high.

Mr Bashir said when he looked back at the car he could not see his wife, and assumed she had gone to cross the barrier at another point further along the road.

His statement said that as he was going back to the car to get the recovery details, another car hit the Nissan Qashqai he had been driving, adding that ‘all I could hear was the horrendous impact’.

Mr Bashir said there was then a second impact as another car hit the vehicle that had crashed into them.

The inquest heard he then saw Mrs Begum lying on the ground.

Mr Bashir said in his statement: ‘I don’t want to describe what I saw as it is still too upsetting.’

He told police that until this incident he was ‘unaware of any changes to the Highway Code, nor the fact that the motorway had changed to a smart version’. 

A statement from the couple’s daughter, Saima Aktar, said she had been on her way to pick her parents up after learning about the crash when she called Mr Bashir, who said: ‘Sweetheart, the situation has changed, there’s been an accident and your mum’s been hurt.’

Ms Aktar added: ‘This accident has broken our family but we are united in not wanting this to happen to another family.

‘We all believe the smart motorway system is dangerous and flawed – if there had been a hard shoulder my dad would have ended up there.’

Ms Aktar also read a pen portrait of her mother to the hearing, describing her as ‘the best mum in the world’.

‘From the moment she arrived in this country in the mid-70s (from Pakistan), her presence was known and felt significantly,’ she said.

‘She was the most caring, loving and selfless person I knew. She had time for everyone.

‘Losing our mother is the most painful and difficult thing we have ever experienced in our lives.

‘To have her taken from us the way she was has been immensely traumatic for each and every one of us.’

The grandmother had exited the car and was waiting for help when another vehicle collided with the Nissan which crashed into her. Pictured: A stretch of smart motorway on the M1, in West Yorkshire

The inquest heard the driver of the Mercedes, Kantrimas Zukauskas, who was initially arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving, had refused to give evidence at the hearing.

Last year, senior coroner Nicola Mundy asked South Yorkshire Police to consider whether Highways England should face corporate manslaughter charges over Mrs Begum’s death.

In February, the force said the organisation, now renamed National Highways, will not be charged after Crown Prosecution Service advice that it did not owe road users a ‘relevant duty of care’ under the terms set out in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

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